50th parish to close in huge Cleveland downsizing
CLEVELAND — They prayed the rosary in public and picketed outside the bishop's office. They held Mass on the sidewalk in the rain.
But the angry Catholics of the Cleveland diocese have watched helplessly as, one by one, 50 churches have been shuttered in the past year.
And on Wednesday, an old Hungarian parish called St. Emeric's was to be the last church to close its doors, ending a massive downsizing of mostly older, ethnic parishes decreed by the diocese because of falling attendance, a priest shortage and financial problems. The diocese has said many of the churches were operating in the red. Some were closed while others merged.
Roman Catholic dioceses across the country have been struggling for years to maintain aging churches amid declining parishioners and financial problems exacerbated by the clergy sex abuse scandal. In Boston, dozens of parishes have been closed or consolidated in recent years.
In Cleveland, where residents have for years fled the city limits for the suburbs, the crisis of the Catholic church closings mirrors the slow decay of the inner city. The spires of old churches rise above abandoned buildings, vestiges of the eastern European immigrants who settled in the city during the industrial revolution. In the early 1900s, the churches were often built by the parishioners, who lovingly pieced together every brick and pane of stained glass.
Back then, the church was the social center of the community. Not so anymore, especially in the older churches, where fewer than 50 people sometimes attended Mass on recent Sunday mornings.
But parishioner Ildiko Korossy, who was married at St. Emeric's 45 years ago, says the church has more than enough parishioners and has been well-maintained.
"We are not short of money," she says. "We have never, in the history of our church, ever borrowed any money from the diocese."
St. Emeric's is one of two Hungarian parishes to close, leaving just one to serve Cleveland's Hungarian community. The diocese says that's enough.
"If you piece the three Hungarian parishes together into one, you might have 1,200 households, which is well below what even our smallest average is in the city, about 2,500," diocese spokesman Robert Tayek says.
The churches primarily serving Cleveland's ethnic groups, which include the Polish, Hungarians and Slovenians, claim that they are being unfairly targeted by the diocese. Amid rising anger from parishioners, Bishop Richard Lennon has canceled plans for some farewell Masses and warned congregations not to set up "renegade" churches. When the bishop does attend Mass, he generally is escorted by police officers.
Lennon, who became bishop of Cleveland in 2006 after overseeing church closings in Boston, is viewed by many Catholics as an outsider who was brought in solely to shut down churches. A group called Endangered Catholics, which opposes the closings, has demanded the appointment of a bishop to oversee Lennon's work.
In a statement released to The Associated Press, Lennon said the downsizing represents just one aspect of the church's Vibrant Parish Life initiative, which began 10 years ago.
"Now, we must encourage all the faithful to promote worship as the center of our lives," he wrote.
When a church closes, the diocese dismantles the interior and removes sacred artifacts, such as stained glass, chalices and the altar. Then the pieces are taken to a warehouse run by Henninger's, a local religious goods store that appraises them and puts them up for sale. Some items are handed over to other parishes within the diocese, but others are sold to church institutions, like a group of nuns from Kentucky who recently hauled off an altar in a rental truck.
The fates of shuttered churches are slowly emerging. In Akron, St. Hedwig Church was sold to a drug rehabilitation agency for $399,000. Once past debts are paid, the money from the sale will follow St. Hedwig's parishioners to the nearby parishes they have joined, Tayek says.
Twenty-one church buildings are currently for up sale, worth a total of about $10 million.
Others are still in limbo. Fourteen churches, including St. Emeric Church, are waiting for the Vatican to rule on their appeals to stay open. Until then, the diocese must maintain the empty buildings and cannot put them on the market.
Before the downsizing began, the Cleveland diocese had 224 parishes serving about 766,000 Catholics in eight northeast Ohio counties. Now there are 174 parishes left.
The bishop has canceled a final Mass at St. Emeric's after parishioners refused to show up. Tayek says the bishop has presided over closing Masses out of respect for the parishioners, but it's not required by church law.
So the faithful Hungarians at St. Emeric's have decided to gather and pray without the bishop. They are still holding out hope for a divine intervention to save their beloved church.
"The nuns there taught me English, taught me religion," says Korossy, 67. "I made my communion there. I buried my parents there. It's very hard."